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Biafra Agitation; Aftereffect Of Gowon’s Refusal To Implement The Three Rs

The call by some northern youth groups that Nigerians of Igbo extraction resident and doing business in the north should relocate to their Southeastern homeland has again evoked the sad memories of events that led to the declaration of the defunct Republic of Biafra and eventual breakout of hostilities between Nigerian and secessionists forces in a destructive 30-month civil war.

Since hostilities ended on January 15, 1970 however, Nigeria has been engulfed in another kind of battle to keep the country together and tackle the myriads of socio-political and economic problems that initially created the environment for conflict.

The renewed ethnic agitations across the land and the northern youths’ call, have shown that the country has not made appreciable progress in the fight to address the major issues that led to the war.

An economist and political scientist, Professor Ebere Onwundiwe, who coordinated a conference with the theme “Memory and Nation Building: 50 years after Biafra” in Abuja and sponsored by the Ford Foundation, Open Society Initiative for Africa (OSIWA) and the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Foundation, said the new wave of ethnic agitation particularly from the Southeast, was due to failure to properly implement the post-war reconciliation programme of the Federal Government.

Onwundiwe who spoke to The Guardian about the conference which had many speakers delivering papers around the issues of conflict resolution and offering solutions to settling agitations especially among the restive youths, urged Nigerians to create a path for future development through reflections on historical occurrences.

The conference had in attendance, Acting President Yemi Osinbajo, former President Olusegun Obasanjo, Alhaji Ahmed Joda, President of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, John Nnia Nwodo and Professor Pat Utomi.

According to Onwundiwe, the mismanagement of the General Yakubu Gowon’s Reconciliation, Reconstruction and Rehabilitation (3Rs) policy, which the military government put in place to erase the scars of war, was the major reason for the resurgence of Biafra uprisings.

He said, “It was the failure of Nigeria to vigorously and successfully implement the Three Rs policy that was partly responsible for the establishment of Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) and Independent People of Biafra (IPOB).

“It is well known that there have been so many protests, riots and recently, even terrorism in Nigeria since the end of the civil war. I think our leaders ought to be having a real epiphany right now with what is contemporaneously happening in the Northeast.

“This is 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, especially reconstruction and rehabilitation, you can also be sure that the children in IDP camps today will grow up and ask questions. Their disagreements with the state then will intensify feelings of deprivation as IPOB members feel today. I believe that the issues generated by the national question that caused the Biafran war are still among us.

“Recall that Nigeria’s goal of the civil war originally was to preserve the country and keep it one. Was it not? Remember also that the common slogan then was “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, which I posit can only happen in the battlefields of policy making and implementation where the most effective weapons are the soft tools of reason, justice and fairness.
“Has Nigeria not been fighting in this particular war zone for 47 odd years? While some territories have been conquered in this war, do you not agree with me that there are still vast areas still in enemy hands? If you ask who this enemy is, my honest answer is that it is we as Nigerians.

“I think we have to begin to tell ourselves the truth and also of necessity learn to separate perceptions from reality. We cannot do this without a rigorous pursuit of the truth in preference for reliance on rumors and stereotypes.”

Speaking on the reasons for the conference, which was essentially held to mark the 50th anniversary of Biafra, Onwundiwe said, “As teachers with great respect for history and knowledge, we consider Biafra a historical fact. When the word Biafra is mentioned or even being discussed as it was done in the conference, it should be done not under the table.

“The history of the Nigerian civil war has become part of the history of Nigeria. Hence we saw a need for a national conversation on the country’s most weighty calamity since self-rule. The continued avoidance of such a national discussion of Biafra cannot be a very smart thing as doing so would amount to sweeping under the carpet, a significant portion of our national history.

“If a society studiously pretends that part of its colossal and catastrophic history did not happen, such society would be investing on the repeat of same in a mindless effort to hide it from its younger generations. I strongly hold that Nigeria cannot survive another Biafra. This leads to the conference’s third objective that is encapsulated in the question frequently asked these days.

“We planned a conference that would formulate where we will go from here as Nigerians. The Yar’Adua Center, the organizers of the conference, did a great job of it. We are not pretending that it was a cure-all conference.

“This is the second conference on Biafra that I have been part of. The first one was at the University of Ibadan. General Gowon was there. General Phillip Effiong was there with other significant participants in government such as Chief Richard Akinjide and noted journalist of that era like the late Chief MCK Ajuluchukwu as well as noted academics from all parts of the country.

“You also saw as we speak, that 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. Still, there is no way to knock the Biafra Fifty Years After Conference. 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.

“We hold that this conference was not an Abuja affair but 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 some grandfatherly persons now over 65 years old who saw the war up close can be moved fifty years on, to align with IPOB and other protesters against marginalization, should make this country think.

“The Yar’Adua Center will soon publish the Report on the Conference which many people already described as an intellectual feast of sorts. The consensus of all the positions taken by all the panelists, is however that all of us will be better off if the country stays together with the assurance of fairness, justice and peace.”

While expressing optimism about the possibility of a united and strong Nigeria, Onwundiwe said the current situation of conflict could be reversed to strengthen the country.

According to him, “However it seems, I don’t believe this is a permanent condition. It is totally reversible. This is one reason I believe in one Nigeria and that Nigeria can win this battle of hearts and minds by plugging all the cracks on the wall of national integration for all Nigerians.

“The country cannot win this war by behaving like ostriches. By hiding its head in the sand and thinking that the system is fair to everyone and that all those protesting injustice such as IPOB and others are just noisemakers.  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 among us.”

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