Buhari, Biafra and the burden of a date

It was significant that Nigeria was marking two years of the Buhari regime and 50 years anniversary of the declaration of the Republic of Biafra at the same period. Both events remind us of the slow process of learning and the inevitability of change. General Muhammadu Buhari, our President, was one of the thousands of young soldiers who participated in the Civil War. He was young then like most of the combatants. Even the commanders-in-chief on both sides were young men. On the federal side was the straight-talking General Yakubu Gowon, a teetotaler and on the Biafran side was the chain-smoking demagogue, General Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu.

One million dead later, our people waded through the debris to pick up their lives. The rebel leader fled into exile in the last flight from the Biafran enclave, not forgetting to ferry his official Mercedes-Benz with him. Despite our impatience and occasional anger, Nigerians have since learnt not to trust the eloquence of violence. After the war, even among the military, only those coups that emphasized consensus instead of violent imposition have succeeded.

After the bloody coup of July 29, 1966, the Nigerian military seem fearful of the impossible ogre it had conjured up. Thus the coup of July 29, 1975, that brought General Murtala Muhammed to power, was peaceful. The Buhari coup that toppled President Shehu Shagari on December 31, 1983, was also relatively peaceful with the significant exception of the killing of Brigadier Bako. When Buhari was also served his own medicine by General Ibrahim Babangida on August 27, 1985, it was peaceful. So was the coup that brought in General Sani Abacha in 1993, toppling the regime of Chief Ernest Shonekan.

However, those classes of citizens that have never tasted violence or understand its terminal incongruity find it attractive and romantic. They want action, but they would not define for what purpose and towards which ends? The Boko Haram insurgents in the North-East would rather wield machine guns than try to win some local government elections. They would not ask themselves the question why is Islam growing in the United States without the help of Boko Haram and some other crazy brigades? So also the Biafran agitators are not apparently interested in winning some governorship seats. How can you claim to speak for a people when you are afraid or unwilling to allow them express their choice in a free and fair election? So far, the Biafran agitators have not been able to articulate what they mean by Biafra. Is it the something as the old Eastern Region that Ojukwu ruled after he was appointed governor by General J.T.U Aguiyi-Ironsi, our first military ruler?

After the horror of the Second World War, humanity realised that war can hardly be regarded as the main instrument of human progress. More than 60 million people died in that war. On D-Day alone in 1944 as American soldiers landed on Normandy, more than 500,000 soldiers perished. The cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan both bore the horror of the atomic bombs that wiped out more than one million people in a few hours. Therefore, in the present post-modern world, the training of diplomats and spies is taking very seriously by nations. You may need an army to defend your territory, but in the real sense, diplomats and spies could do a better job at less cost.

Therefore, humanity has learnt to depend on laws, on conventions, on customs and traditions that promote justice and human dignity. No one is bigger than the law and no ruler is stronger than the tradition of his people. In 1936, Edward VIII, the son of the late King George V, became King of Great Britain and Ireland. At time too, he was King of Nigeria, one of his colonial possessions. He was a popular bachelor-prince whose ascension was welcomed with universal approbation by his subjects. Then he decided to pick a bride. The object of his desire was a twice-divorced American Catholic, Wallis Simpson. By British tradition, the sovereign cannot marry a non-Anglican and certainly not a Catholic. And he must marry a virgin. The king was advised to look for a new bride and keep Mrs Wallis as his mistress, but he would not yield. In the end, he was presented with the ultimate choice: choose between the throne and your lover. He chose his lover and lost a throne. King Edward VIII reigned for only 10 months and he was succeeded by his brother, the father of the current Queen Elizabeth II. The former king was later exiled from Britain, made the Duke of Windsor and later the Governor of the Bahamas. He was never to step on his native soil again until they brought his body for burial in 1972.

Society is built on incremental knowledge so that we know what is acceptable and expected for the survival of our civilisations. That is why teachers are so important because they are the priests in the temple of knowledge. One senior professor who had spent many years in the service of a world organisation once lamented about the plights of the current generation of Nigerian scholars. They know many things, but not enough about their own people and their own territories. In 1914, the Lagos Daily Record, one of the earliest newspapers in Nigeria, suggested that Africans imitating Europeans can learn from the experience of Japan which domesticated Western education and knowledge to suit the peculiar cultural environment of their country. With that, Japanese are able to compete favorably with the Western world. We could see today that Japan is holding its own. Can we say the same of Africa?

To domesticate knowledge, we must ask the right questions. So we celebrated Democracy Day on Monday, May 29 because that was the anniversary of when General Abdulsalami Abubakar handed over power to elected President Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999. If General Ibrahim Babangida had handed over power to elected President Moshood Abiola on August 27, 1993, would that have been our Democracy Day? The late Senator Abraham Adesanya, leader of Afenifere, use to insist that the real Democracy Day should be June 12 because of the significance of Abiola’s struggle to validate his victory at the 1993 presidential election held on that date. It was the struggle for that validation that led ultimately to the return of democratic rule in 1999.

We don’t know why General Abubakar and his junta settled for May 29 to hand over power. There is nothing apparently scientific or romantic about that date. He could have waited till October 1, with its magic and evocation of our eventual triumph against colonial rule. If he had done this, he would have enjoyed power for four more months.

One of our leaders, the late Otunba Solanke Onasanya, once told us the story about October 1. He said October 1, 1960 was agreed upon by our leaders at the last London Constitutional Conference which was attended by delegations led by the three titans, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo and Ahmadu Bello. When it was announced, the then Oba of Lagos, Adeniji Adele, went to see the Prime-Minister, Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa-Balewa. Adele told the Prime-Minister that Ifa oracle (the Yoruba ancient system of divination) was consulted and that the omen for October 1 was not good. He advised that the date for independence should be shifted to November 1960.

“If you insist on that date, Ifa has warned that the first 10 years would be very turbulent,” Adele told the Prime-Minister.

Balewa, a normally imperturbable man, laughed uproariously. He sent Adele away with a warm handshake.

Ten years later, the Civil War ended and Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo, commander of the Third Marine Commando Division, led members of the Biafran High Command, led by General Phillip Effiong, to present the instrument of surrender to General Yakubu Gowon in Lagos.

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