This article is a follow-up to my previous write-up about the role of the victim of violence in social reconciliation. It is about the ongoing uneasiness between the Igbo ethnic nationality and Nigerian nation-state. What could be the positive role of Nnamdi Kanu and his group in the resurgent Biafra saga? There have been missed opportunities in the past in the dialogue between Nigerian state and the Igbo. What is the new opportunity Nnamdi Kanu and his group may be offering us today?
Most of those calling for reconciliation and unity of the country today, especially, state actors and players have refused to get to the heart of the Nigerian story. Some others, non-state players, naïve outsiders, who are not the direct perpetrators of violence, may be well-meaning people, but they also may contribute to the violence by their actions, since they are allying themselves with the perpetrators of violence in the way that they are addressing themselves to the victims of violence.
Unfortunately, religious leaders sometimes cast themselves in this role, thinking they are doing their religious role. They stress correctly the theme of forgiveness and promotion of national unity, but are ignorant in this situation of what forgiveness and unity will entail.
Judging from what the Igbos have gone through in Nigeria, especially, during and after the Civil War till date, our basic proposition in this article is that they are the victims in the dialogue with the Nigerian state. As victims, they hold the key to achieving a true social reconciliation in Nigeria today. The Nigerian state, therefore, should engage with them in dialogue instead of vilified. This is why the Nnamdi Kanu phenomenon is an opportunity for Nigerian rebirth and not a danger as such.
Again, our inspiration for this basic proposition of our article is from Christian theology of social reconciliation, especially, the Pauline teaching on reconciliation in the social realm.
The concern here is that the Nigerian state approach to Igbo question, especially after the Civil War has been missing the mark. The state has chosen a path of false reconciliation instead of true reconciliation as far as Igbo question and state relationship with them is concerned. The voice of the victims of violence are subdued and suppressed in Nigeria. But it is the victim that holds the key to true reconciliation and national unity.
When Mahatma Gandhi began his movement of non-violence to achieve self-determination and freedom for his Indian people, the British colonialists first started haunting him and his group with violence and persecutions. However, the colonial masters were later to discover that they cannot ignore or intimidate Gandhi and expect to establish unity and peace in India. From the moment they discovered this and began to engage in dialogue with Gandhi, peace and freedom returned to all the parties involved. Gandhi, a victim of British colonial rascality became a reconciler and peace-builder for both parties for India’s rebirth.
In the United States of America (USA), Martin Luther King Jr. played the same role in negotiating dialogue and peaceful coexistence between White Americans and African Americans, victims of Slave Trade and American racism. When American establishment discovered they cannot stop Black revolt and discontent through repression and violence, they had no other option than to engage in dialogue and reconciliation process with Martin Luther King Jr. and his non-violence movement.
Nelson Mandela played a similar role for his people in the Apartheid segregated South Africa. After spending over 27 years in prison, accused of all sorts of things, including being a communist and terrorist by the Apartheid regime, the South African establishment came to discover eventually, that the country cannot move forward without dialoguing with Mandela and his (outlawed) African National Congress (ANC). The rest is now history.
Suffice to add here that most of the founding Fathers of African political independence in the 1960s suffered the same fate at the hands of European colonialists. But the Europeans were quick to discover that they would be no peace in their respective colonies unless they bring to the table of dialogue the freedom fighters of African political independence. We could go on and on to cite examples of this sort, but enough is said already.
What is True Reconciliation?
Christian theology of reconciliation emphasizes the fact that God initiates the work of reconciliation in the lives of the victims. If reconciliation depended entirely upon the wrongdoers’ initiative, there would be next to no reconciliation at all. God begins with the victim, restoring to the victim the humanity which the wrongdoer has tried to wrest away or to destroy. This restoration of humanity might be considered the very heart of reconciliation.
The experience of reconciliation is the experience of grace – the restoration of one’s damaged humanity in a life-giving relationship with God. Humans are created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26). It is that image by which humanity might mirror divinity, by which humanity comes into communion with divinity, that is restored.
Therefore, for St. Paul the Apostle, reconciliation is the work of God, who initiates and completes in us reconciliation through Christ. Reconciliation is not a human achievement, but the work of God within us.
Again, that God begins with the victim and not the evildoer is consistent with divine activity in history. God takes the side of the poor, the widowed and the orphaned, the oppressed and the imprisoned. It is in the ultimate victim, God’s son Jesus Christ, that God begins the process that leads to the reconciliation of the whole world in Christ (Colossians 1:20). In like manner, God begins the process of human reconciliation with the victim. It is the victim that the wrongdoer is called to repentance and forgiveness.
Furthermore, because social reconciliation always remains incomplete, intermediate structures and processes will always be needed to rebuild and sustain the social fabric. How laws are to be formulated, how amnesty and pardon are to be judiciously used to strengthen a new society, how justice is to be understood and implemented: all of these require strategic thinking and action. This is where the role of intellectuals and the state itself is very crucial if the country means really to achieve true reconciliation and healing.
In other words, the experience of reconciliation makes both victim and wrongdoer a new creation. This is in keeping with the traditional concept of reconciliation as the restoration of our humanity. The experience of God’s reconciling work is such that restoration does not mean taking us back to our former state, the condition in which we were before evil was done.
Rather it is a restoration in the sense that God gives us back the humanity that was wrested from us; a humanity that includes now the experience of injustice and violation; it is a transformation of the experience that will be forever part of who we are. Reconciliation is not about the erasure of memory; it is about its transformation.
At the same time, reconciliation is not about going back. It is about addressing the past adequately so that we can go forward. That going back is not something we can construct entirely for ourselves. If we could, reconciliation would be reduced to a strategy.
The fact that the outcome of reconciliation is so often a surprise, both for victims and for entire communities and state, is an experience of that ‘new creation.’ Victims find themselves in a new place, often with a vocation to heal others. The state and communities find themselves also in a new place where they had not expected to be. This new creation of both victim and wrongdoer is a sign of God’s presence. The victim’s restored humanity must include the painful experience of violence, because that is now part of the victim’s memory and identity. But it is transformed toward a new end.
This process of reconciliation that creates the new humanity is rooted in the story of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is divine reconciliation, rooted in the story of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection.
Our narratives of suffering, of experience of violence and violation, can find their form and their transformation in the story of what God has done in Christ. His passion and death are recounted, not for gruesome and unjust treatment they were, but as a ‘dangerous memory’ of how God subverted power that was used for perpetrating injustice. The resurrection confirms and manifests God’s power over evil, which is why we are able to read the resurrection stories as stories of God’s healing and forgiving power in the world.
In other words, the paschal mystery – becomes the pathway from suffering to death and then to new life. It is a narrative that organizes our chaotic and painful experience of violence into a narrative that will carry us, too, from death to life.
Paul reflects on this reality in his letter to the Philippians: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the death” (Philippians 3: 10-11).
Nigeria and the Rwandan “Victim” Model of Reconciliation
Let us cite just one instance of an African country which experienced almost similar situation Nigeria found itself today, but which has become a world acclaimed model of reconciled nation-state after the traumatic experience of genocide. Rwanda is classical example of where the victim of violence became a symbol and executor of reconciliation and healing.
Since the time the Belgium colonial masters deposed a Tutsi monarch and installed their puppet kind of President from the rivalry ethnic group, a Hutu, to perpetuate their colonial domination through system of divide-and-rule, Rwanda had never known peace. The Hutus had been ruling Rwanda since then, even after the 1959 and 1972 Rwandan wars in which they were the alleged aggressors. Instead of being agents of reconciliation and healing, the Hutus continued with their process of domination and subjugation of the rivalry ethnic group (Tutsi) through government machinery and military force, with the foreign backing of their former colonial masters, Belgium and France.
However, after the 1994 Tutsi genocide, all these things changed. The victim of violence assumed a new function in Rwandan history. A Tutsi became entrusted with the leadership of the country and thereafter, initiated a new beginning for Rwanda with an inclusive government.
In Rwanda today, no one carries ethnic-card again as was the case under Hutu dominated government. What counts is your being a Rwandan, not Tutsi nor Hutu, etc.
In other words, the 1994 Tutsi genocide was not the first in modern history of Rwanda. The Tutsi had experienced a similar fate of genocide in 1959 and 1972 Rwandan wars. That is why a good number of them had to relocate to neighboring countries like Uganda, Burundi and Democratic Republic of Congo. We should not forget that Paul Kagame, the present President of Rwanda, and his Tutsi group who liberated Rwanda during the 1994 genocidal war, came from the neighboring Uganda where their families had relocated from the time of the Rwandan first two civil wars of 1959 and 1972.
Today, the Tutsi victims of violence are helping men and women of their country of all ethnic groups to come to terms with their past, forgive and reconcile with one another. This is because, after the 1994 genocide, Rwandans learnt a bitter lesson. They came to realize that the key to reconciliation and healing does not lie at the hands of perpetrators of genocide, the aggressors. All along, before now, they had left at the hands of aggressors, not only the leadership of the country but also conflict resolution and post-war management.
However, after the 1994 Tutsi genocide all those things changed. In today’s Rwanda, the victims of genocide are the bearers and authors of reconciliation and healing. This is the ‘magic’ of the ‘New’ Rwanda. What can Nigeria learn from it? This is the crux of the matter!
Biafra and Nigeria’s Missed Opportunities
Come to think of it: after the 1966-1967 Igbo pogrom in Northern Nigeria and elsewhere, Nigeria missed a unique opportunity of achieving true reconciliation and healing. Had Nigeria kept to the terms of ‘Aburi Accord’, listened and dialogued with Ojukwu, leader of the victims of Biafran pogrom, the Civil War (1967-1970), could had been avoided.
It is very interesting to see, how, everybody is nowadays talking of true federalism and restructuring the country. Was this not what was agreed upon by the two parties at the Aburi Conference in Ghana? Why was it rejected then? Have the reasons for its rejection now changed?
There are many observers, both local and international, who believe the Nigerian Federal Government attitude and actions towards the Igbos after the Civil War were magnanimous and laudable. They are those who talk of how the Igbo were wonderfully integrated into Nigeria.
However, the question of whether the Igbos have been integrated into Nigeria is one that only Igbos themselves can answer. The integration of Igbos into Nigeria since after the Civil War, is a story only Igbos can tell. And as Achebe, rightly noted: “The Igbo were not and continue not to be reintegrated into Nigeria. One of the main reasons for the country’s continued backwardness, in my estimation.”
Again, it is true that after the Civil War, the Federal Government of Nigeria launched an elaborate scheme highlighted by the famous three Rs – for Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, and Reconciliation, however, the fact is it ended only there in a paper. The three Rs – scheme was not concretely pursued and executed to even 5 percent. For instance: “The administrator of East Central State, Mr. Ukpabi Asika, announced that Eastern Nigeria required close to a half a billion pounds to complete the reconstruction effort. None of us recall that he received anything close to a fraction of the request.”
Thus, Nigeria has since then continued to miss important opportunities of reintegrating Igbos into the country. One such missed opportunity, also was when Ojukwu came back from the exile in Ivory Coast in 1983. In his return from exile, Ojukwu joined politics, pitched his tent with a Northern Nigeria dominated political party, National Party of Nigeria (NPN) instead of Nigerian Peoples’ Party (NPP), which had its base in Igboland.
Ojukwu contested a seat in the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria on the platform of NPN, but unfortunately, was rigged out by the powers that be. Since then, the Federal Government made sure that Ojukwu was never elected into any political office anywhere in the country. For no just cause, he was even arrested and left to waste away in Kirikiri Maximum Prison, Lagos by Buhari-Idiagbon Military Junta.
Still, during the same period of Buhari-Idiagbon Military Junta, Nigeria missed another opportunity, though in a small scale, of matching the slogan of “unity” with true love for the country in its relationship with Igbo people.
Between 1983 and 1985, one Peter Onu of Nigeria (Igbo extraction) was Acting Secretary-General of the Organization for African Unity (OAU: now African Union (AU). At the 1985 Summit in Addis Ababa, Statesmen like Julius Nyerere, President of Tanzania, among others, lobbied for his election as substantive Secretary-General.
However, Peter Onu’s candidature had one major obstacle. His Head of State, Muhammed Buhari was campaigning against him. Buhari had earlier preached that: “This generation of Nigerians and indeed future generations have no other country than Nigeria.”
But when it came to giving his support as Head of State to vote and elect an Igbo man into the office of Secretary-General of OAU, his allegiance to Nigeria disappeared. In the election of the OAU Secretary-General in 1985, Buhari voted against Nigeria and for Niger Republic instead. He secured the election of the Oumarou, a Fulani man from Niger Republic, as opposed to an Igbo man from Nigeria.
This was the first and only time, in modern international relations, a Head of State voted against his country in favor of his tribe.
Furthermore and in another context, it is interesting to see some social commentators and politicians pontificate on those foreign nationals of Nigerian Igbo descent – recently elected into British Parliament, or those in Gabon, where one was appointed a Roman Catholic Bishop, the other elected President of the country, and so forth. What the social commentators and politicians who discuss this topic forget to mention is the fact that those people they cite as examples of how Igbos have been reintegrated into the society, were actually, flown into foreign lands during the Civil War as minors and refugees. In that, they were miraculously, saved from bullets of the federal troops and the infamous kwashiorkor, caused by the Federal Government starvation policy and total blockade of Biafraland during the war.
Had those Biafran children not been air lifted to foreign countries like Gabon and Ivory Coast, thanks to international charitable organizations and Christian missionaries that defiled the Federal Government embargo and blockade against Biafra, we would not be having those success stories of Nigerian Igbo foreign nationals. This is because, even after the end of the conflict, the Nigerian government never thought it a necessity as it did not feel any moral obligation to search for those children of Civil War victims airlifted as refugees to other countries.
Just as the South East region has remained under neglect by the federal government since after the war, so were the Biafran children, flown to foreign lands as refugees during the war were left to die, forgotten there forever by the Nigerian state even after the conflict. But God came to the rescue of some of them, including those who recently won elections into the British Parliament, and others who had made similar strides in Gabon and elsewhere. So that their so-called success stories is more an indictment to Nigerian state than any other thing. It is a reminder of a failed Nigerian state in its relation to the Biafra question.
Moreover, immediately after the Civil War, Nigeria missed an important opportunity of reintegrating Igbos into the country. The Federal Government dumped all Igbos into one state, landlocked it, and installed a reneged as their civilian administrator, Mr. Ukpabi Asika.
How do you expect Ukpabi Asika, someone who denied his people at such most critical time, the Biafra War, to govern them in an era of ‘reconciliation, reconstruction and rehabilitation?’ Instead of empowering one of the victims of the war as administrator of the defunct East Central State, the then Federal Military Government foisted on the Igbos a renegade, an avowed hater of the Igbo, as their administrator.
Unfortunately, this trend of foisting renegades as political leaders in Igboland by the powers that be, has not changed. Was it not for this reason that Chinua Achebe of blessed memory refused the Nigerian National Award, for the second time, during Obasanjo regime, in the following words:
“For sometime now, I have watched events in Nigeria with alarm and dismay. I have watched particularly the chaos in my own state of Anambra where a small clique of renegades, openly boosting of its connections in high places, seems determined to turn my homeland into a bankrupt and lawless fiefdom. I am appalled by the silence, if not connivance, of the Presidency.” (Chinua Achebe).
In fact, since after the Civil War, Igboland had been subjected to systematic impoverishment and pauperization through the “I don’t care” attitude of renegades the federal government often installs there as governors as well as through economic stagnation, and marginalization. Igbo people are structurally excluded at the highest leadership echelon of the country. Often, true Igbo leaders are prevented through hooks or crooks from reaching the mantle of leadership both at the federal and state levels.
In other words, since after the Civil War, the Federal Government’s actions with regard to the Igbo could be seen not as conciliatory, but as Achebe rightly noted, “as outright hostile.”
After the conflict ended, Nigerian government cast the Igbo in the role of treasonable felons and wreckers of the nation. Nigerian government adopted a banking policy which nullified any bank account which had been operated during the war by the Biafrans. A flat sum of twenty pounds was approved for each Igbo depositor of the Nigerian currency, regardless of the amount of deposit. It was indeed a measure put in place to stunt and obliterate the economy of the Igbo.
Again, after that outrageous policy, the Nigerian government banned the importation of secondhand clothing and stockfish – two trade items that they knew the burgeoning market towns of Onitsha, Aba, and Nnewi needed to reemerge. Their fear was that these communities, fully reconstituted, would then serve as the economic engines for the reconstruction of the entire Eastern region.
It was this same period that the Enterprises Promotion Decree of 1974, also known as the Indigenization Decree was promulgated by the Federal Government, in order to force foreign holders of majority shares of companies operating in Nigeria to hand over to the preponderance of stocks, bonds, and shares to local Nigerian business interests. This idea was sold to the public as some sort of “pro-African liberation strategy” to empower Nigerian businesses and shareholders.
However, the real motive behind the whole scheme of the so-called ‘Indigenization Decree’, was to stripe a third of the Nigerian population, the Igbo of the means to acquire capital, because, the Federal Government, knew that by and large, with its hostile economic policies directed against them, the Igbo would not have the financial muscle to participate in this plot.
“The end result, they hoped, would be a permanent shifting of economic power away from the East to other constituencies.” As a result, very few Igbos participated, and many of the jobs and positions in most of the sectors of the economy previously occupied by Easterners went to those from other parts of the country.
As if these were not enough, immediately after the Civil War, the property of Igbos in different parts of the country, especially, in Old Rivers State, were declared abandoned. One wonders how the Federal Government expected the Igbos to cope up in the ‘New’ unified Nigeria with these hostile policies and attitudes directed against them since after the Civil War.
Moreover, immediately after the Civil War till today, Igboland is almost like a region under military occupation, with Police, Military, Road Safety Corps members, Paramilitary groups, etc., mounting roadblocks all over the place, harassing innocent citizens and collecting money illicitly from motorists and cyclists here and there. They are not there to provide any security, check armed robbers or kidnappers but rather to extort money illicitly from innocent citizens, especially, motorists and cyclists.
Furthermore, till date, no significant federal ministry, industry or parastatal is cited in Igboland. No international Airports, Sea Ports, modern railways, high ways and roads of international standard, and so forth, are sighted and constructed in Igboland. The only existing Bridge across the Niger in Onitsha is not only old and overworked, but also had been left to rot and decay through neglect and lack of maintenance. For more than fifty years, there have been talks for the construction of second Niger Bridge at Onitsha, but that is where it ends. Nothing tangible has happened since then.
In addition, South East region is deprived of the presence of consulates of foreign embassies in Nigeria, Multi-National Companies and other international offices. People of the South East are constrained to go through either Lagos in Western Nigeria or Abuja and Kano in the North to obtain visas or do business with any international agencies, industries as well as Federal Government companies and parastatals.
Igbo traders, who do export and import businesses must do it through Lagos. The Nigerian government has refused to develop and open up Port Harcourt and Calabar Sea Ports to international routes and businesses. That means that everything must pass through Lagos.
Needless to add that South East has the least states in comparison to all other regions, and therefore, the least federal government revenue allocation. This has implications for job opportunities, federal government appointments, judiciary, national assembly representation, contracts, developmental projects, admission into federal institutions, universities, military and police schools, etc., which follow the so-called quota system.
The Electricity supply in the South East is the lowest. It can’t even serve the domestic needs of the people talkless of carrying industrial needs. The same applies to other basic amenities needed to develop a region.
All these mean that Nigerian state is not yet serious with its slogan for ‘unified’ nation.’ Nigeria has not shown in its relationship with the Igbo that it is ready to initiate a process of reconciliation and national healing since after the Civil War.
This is why Nnamdi Kanu has gained an unprecedented relevance among his people today. Because, no matter what, Nigeria as a nation-state cannot run away from the Biafra question. No matter the intimidation, suppression and empty slogans against Nnamdi Kanu and his Igbo people in favor of ‘One Nigeria’ as it is constituted presently, the Biafra question is an open wound Nigerian cannot avoid. Today, Nnamdi Kanu is the most visible and credible face of that question. The earlier we recognize this, the better for all of us.
In this regard, Nnamdi Kanu phenomenon is an opportunity Nigerian state cannot afford to miss today. The government should invite him, initiate a sincere and transparent dialogue with the Igbo through him. In the eyes of many Igbos today, especially, the younger generation, Nnamdi Kanu is the most visibly credible political leader and figure in the South East. This is the naked truth.
His fidelity to Igbo cause has been tested and he has proved himself trustworthy in the eyes of majority of his people. That is why he commands such fellowship among his people, especially, the youth in a way no political figure had been able to do for many years now.
To ignore Nnamdi Kanu’s significance to Nigeria at this particular time of our national history, and demonize him, is to miss the most important opportunity, God in his divine wisdom is offering us today for the country’s rebirth. To continue to harm him and his group is to miss this unique opportunity of salvaging Nigeria as a nation-state from total eclipse. A stitch in time saves nine!
Oborji, is a professor of missiology (mission theology) at a Pontifical University in Rome
Follow us on twitter @jimidisu