Dapo Thomas, the civil war and Nigeria’s perceived Igbo problem, By Segun Ayobolu

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Is there an ‘Igbo problem’ that has persisted and increasingly grown more complex, compounded and nation-threatening in post-colonial Nigeria? In chapter 9 of his slim classic, ‘The Trouble with Nigeria’, titled ‘The Igbo Problem’, the late Professor Chinua Achebe dilated on this issue. According to him, “Nigerians of all other ethnic groups will probably achieve consensus on no other matter than their common resentment of the Igbo…Modern Nigerian history has been marked by sporadic eruptions of anti-Igbo feeling of serious import; but it was not until 1966-7 when it swept through Northern Nigeria like a ‘flood of hate’ that the Igbo first questioned the concept of Nigeria which they had embraced with much greater fervor than the Yoruba or Hausa/Fulani”.

Vigorously debunking what their critics perceive as the ‘clannishness, aggressiveness or arrogance’ of the Igbo, Achebe contended that the open, relatively democratic and merit-oriented character of Igbo society as well as the adventurous, industrious and competitive spirit of the Igbo tends towards a level of success and achievement on their part that makes them the envy of others especially in other parts of the country where their itinerant disposition has led them.

Five decades after the tragic Nigerian civil war, a conflict in which an estimated 2 to 3 million lives were lost, the grievances that triggered that avoidable conflagration remains well and alive and the South-East remains one of the most aggrieved and thus unstable and volatile parts of the country. This is obviously why Dr. Dapo Thomas of the Department of History and International Studies, Lagos State University (LASU), casts an analytical searchlight on the war in the research essay titled ‘The Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970): New Theories, Old Problem, Fresh Crisis’ published in volume 10, Number 3, May-June, 2022, edition of the peer-reviewed journal, ‘International Relations and Diplomacy’ issued in the United States.

Although scores of largely descriptive works have been published on the war, many of them by combatant participants in the conflict, Dr. Thomas seeks to bring conceptual and theoretical clarity to bear on the tragedy arguing that “some of the underlying issues that precipitated the war still exist and need to be de-established in order to attenuate their resurgent capability. The article makes a case for constructive and functional integration of the multiple nationalities that make up the Nigerian state as a way of preserving the corporate existence of the country. It also submits that perceived injustice is not just injurious to a system; it is capable of causing a dysfunction within the state because of its inflammatory war potential”.

Dr. Thomas dwells at length on various theories that seek to explicate the triggers of civil war onset in diverse empirical settings obviously in the belief that clarity at the theoretical level will facilitate learning of the appropriate lessons therefrom as well as empower society to more effectively deal with the onset of fresh crises and nip them in the bud before they implode uncontrollably as in the case of the Nigerian civil war. According to him, “Most writers of the Nigerian civil war refrained from the theoretical underpinning that could help illuminate the discourse on the war. The theoretical shyness is responsible for the visible incoherence in the arguments, analyses and logical processing in most of the literature…For instance, most of the books focused their attention on the causes of the war without emphasizing the theoretical signification of the war. No doubt, lack of theoretical understanding was one of the reasons why we have a resurgence of insurgency in the South-East as efforts and energy were channeled towards the history of the war rather than the conceptual fundamentals of the war”.

This writer does not subscribe to the ethno-regional causal interpretation of crises and instability in Nigeria. There is no such thing as an Igbo problem in Nigeria just as it is shallow and diversionary to talk of a Yoruba, Hausa-Fulani, Kanuri or Ijaw problem for instance. Nigeria’s fundamental problem is not one of ethnicity or regionalism but that of an essentially corrupt, exploitative, inept and visionless governing class which is pan-Nigerian in composition and character. No faction of the ruling class can be exempted from responsibility for the protracted crises of poverty and underdevelopment in post-colonial Nigeria.

The Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa-Fulani and other ethnic fractions of the political class across civilian and military regimes and transcending partisan political divides have been responsible for the massive looting of the treasury and poor governance that has led to the trapping of the country’s abundant but latent potentials and the consequent continued ‘immiseration’ of the vast majority of the people.

The collapse of the first republic in January 1966 was a function, largely, of the vicious and unstructured competition for power among the contending factions of the political class as represented in the dominant political parties of the period – Northern People’s Congress (NPC), National Congress of Nigerian Citizens (NCNC) and Action Group (AG) – as well as the smaller parties such as the Northern Elements Progressive Union (NEPU) and the United Middle Belt Congress (UMBC) which went into alliances with one or the other of the major parties. In the unbridled and unrestrained competition for power among the elite and their parties largely for the purpose of venal material accumulation, democratic structures and processes were eroded and abridged while both structural and physical violence were deployed on a scale that made it virtually inevitable for the professional experts in the mechanics and instruments of violence, the military, to forcefully step in to displace the politicians and project themselves as the new political Messiahs.

Unfortunately, the ethno-regionally skewed nature of the killings of civilian and military leaders in the process of executing the coup suggested that its masterminds were not themselves immune from some of the vices they accused the politicians of. No matter what, it is unfortunate and remains a monumental act of injustice that a humongous number of innocent Igbos who had nothing to do with the coup perished while millions were forced to flee in the pogrom in the North attendant on the counter coup of July 1966. This remains a sore point in our history which must be addressed as part of the basis for continued national cohesion.

Although he describes the use of the Marxist social conflict theory to interpret the Nigerian civil war as anachronistic as it has been overtaken by more contemporary explanatory schemas, Thomas nevertheless offers a brilliant depiction of the radical perspective which, in my view, continues to be relevant to the understanding of conflict, alienation and instability in contemporary Nigeria.

In his words, “Social conflict theorists believe that tensions provoked by economic and social misplacements are largely responsible for disagreements and conflicts…Material insufficiency engenders bitter struggle for control not only of the insufficient resources but of the power to allocate the resources or to appropriate the resources. Constrained and restricted by knowledge deficit, the dregs of society have resorted to violent conducts to redress prevalent social inequalities and rampant oppression by the political class”. It was as a result of his understanding of the economic and class basis of the country’s socio-political crises that Chief Obafemi Awolowo warned in a lecture in Akure in January 1980 that “The rich and highly placed in business, public life and government are running a dreadful risk in their callous neglect of the poor and downtrodden”.

It is remarkable that less than a decade after the civil war, in 1979, an Igbo man, the cerebral Dr. Alex Ekwueme, had become the elected Vice President of Nigeria on the platform of the defunct National Party of Nigeria (NPN). But for the military intervention of 1983 that disrupted the country’s democratic evolution, is it not most likely that an Igbo man would have inevitably become President at some point in the unfolding dynamics of the political process? But that is what historians would refer to as a counter-factual question which may not be of much use now.

Unfortunately, the leaders and principal actors in the post-1983 military regimes – Muhammadu Buhari, Tunde Idiagbon, Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha – were combatants in the Nigerian civil war and their psychological disposition to the National Question was that “the unity of Nigeria is non-negotiable”. This also is the obvious worldview of the President Muhammadu Buhari administration even when the context in which the supposed non-negotiability of Nigeria’s unity was tenable has altered fundamentally.

As Dr. Thomas puts it, “The war of 1967-1970 was fought under a military administration at a time when there was no proliferation of small and light arms. The situation has changed now; what we have today is a situation where small and light arms are being smuggled into the country by faceless merchants whose economic interest can only flourish when there is national instability. This time around, it is the politicians that are in power. I do not want to imagine the catastrophe that we are likely to witness should there be an outbreak or escalation of hostilities? Must we then allow another outbreak of war and lose millions of lives, disrupt social and economic activities, displace innocent citizens and destabilize a system that is just being nurtured before we act on the wish of the Igbo?”.

It is of course beyond dispute that as a major ethnic group in the country, an Igbo presidency is a necessary condition for the closure of the psychological wounds of the civil war and the stability, peace and cohesion of Nigeria. But in the context of liberal democracy in a complex, plural polity like ours, this objective cannot be achieved by the kind of social media terrorism, bullying and intolerance persistently exhibited by fervent members of the ‘ObiDient’ movement even when the Labour Party (LP) candidate, Mr. Peter Obi, has repeatedly claimed that he is a national and not a sectional candidate.

The question of the strategy and tactics for the realization of Igbo presidency was brilliantly addressed by governor Chukwuma Soludo of Anambra State in his recent explosive public treatise on the issue. The late Ikemba Odumegwu Ojukwu had founded the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) for that purpose and handed over the party to Obi to nurture and build. The latter inexplicably abandoned APGA to join the PDP at the expiration of his eight-year tenure as governor of Anambra State in 2014, was its Vice presidential candidate in 2019 and only left the party this year for the LP not on ideological ground but when it became obvious to him that he was unlikely to emerge either as Presidential or Vice Presidential candidate of the PDP.

Soludo argues that it is wiser and more practicable to build APGA into a formidable political structure to negotiate and bargain with other blocs and major parties to promote the interest of the South-East in the Nigerian federation including the vexed issue of Igbo presidency. It is difficult to disagree with him. Even then, it does not require a President of Igbo extraction to decisively address the questions of justice and equity as it concerns the Igbo in Nigeria.

For instance, there is no reason why expeditious action cannot be taken to create an additional state in the South-East to bring the nation to par with other major ethnic groups in this regard. As Soludo argued, the post-Buhari administration must pursue the equivalent of a Marshall Plan for the South-East in fulfillment of the reconstruction pledge of the Federal Government to the region in the aftermath of the civil war. Indeed, is there any reason why we cannot have an annual National Biafra Day to allow for unceasing reflection on the lessons of the civil war and ways of ensuring our continuous march to ‘a more perfect union’ as the American founding fathers so delicately and aptly phrased it?

First published in The Nation Newspaper

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