The greatest honour we can do the dead is to ensure that the circumstances of their demise are never re-enacted and that the genocidal hate crimes that claimed their lives are frontally confronted. We cannot change the past; we can only learn from it and ensure that we don’t repeat its tragedies.
The state has to fully embrace its role as the guarantor of peace, security and justice for all Nigerians. Its failure to act as such has been the biggest boon to armed non-state actors seeking to occupy the vacuum left by a derelict state. The state must stridently and swiftly punish merchants of hate.
Without this, the state loses legitimacy and people resort to deadly self help. A nation is an ongoing contestation of identity, meaning, memory, values and geography. Nigeria is no different. The just concluded elections re-opened some old wounds, and threatened to inflame our cleavages, as the feverish desperation to retain power inspired polarising rhetoric and hate-mongering on a scale not seen in a long time. With electoral hostilities now over, the need to ensure national healing and promote nation-building over sectarian bickering must now assume centre-stage.
The first order of business is to reclaim our past but history itself is contested terrain because our recollections, limited as they are by our vantage points, are inherently subjective. Every group in Nigeria begins its narrative of victimhood from sacred dates most amenable to its claim of victimisation.
For instance, we remember June 12, 1993 for the election won by Moshood Abiola and subsequently annulled by the military but we ignore October 16, 1992, when the same regime annulled the presidential primaries of all political parties and banned 23 presidential aspirants. We remember July 29, 1966, for the counter-coup in which mutinying Northern soldiers killed scores of their eastern comrades but not the earlier mutiny of January 15 that year that eliminated Northern military and political leaders. The First Republic elite failed when they gridlocked politics and deployed illiberal means to retain power, creating conditions for the Tiv revolt, unrest in the Western Region and the collapse of that order.
For some people, January 15 was a noble revolution that was tragically subverted, while for others it was a sectional attempt to seize power from a dominant elite faction. The multiple narratives and perspectives we have of our history are similar to the case of the fabled blind men of Hindustan who each held different parts of an elephant and thus described it differently. An intelligent approach to our history must harmonise these perspectives in order to give us a properly nuanced portrait of the past. It must also identify the elephants in the room and revisit the pageant of our collective failures.
The state failed in 1966 when it failed to protect easterners from mass killings in the North and bring such perpetrators to justice. In his prison memoirs, The Man Died, Wole Soyinka described the killings as “the colossal moral failure…that led to secession and war” and “an unbelievable moral dereliction of which the nation had been so guilty.”
Nigeria, he wrote, failed to take due cognisance of “what happens to human beings and to a nation when any group within that nation is tacitly declared to be outside the law’s protection and is fair game for any man with slightest grudge or fanatical inclination that turns to genocide.” There is a credible mitigating argument that a young post-colonial state simply lacked the internal coherence and the military regime had too tenuous a grip on power to be able to restore order.
The collapse of a fragile elite consensus and the army’s loss of institutional discipline meant that the Nigerian state itself, for a period, had only a precarious existence. As for the January 15 coup, the selective dispensation of pseudo-revolutionary justice ensured that its advertised aims, however lofty, would be forever entangled in a dense thicket of sectarian animus and suspicion. Despite Kaduna Nzeogwu’s momentous claim that January 15 would end tribalism and corruption in public life, the body count left in his wake seemed more suggestive of an ethnic power grab.
Historians such as Bala Usman and Max Siollun have argued that the January 15 coup was rooted less in ethnic chauvinism than in the class and partisan dynamics that inspired a military faction sympathetic to the opposition to attempt the ouster of the ruling party. Our sectarian frames of analyses customarily sidestep nuance in favour of clichéd simplicity.
The same jaundiced lenses that make some see January 15 as an Igbo plot against Northern leadership also make some see Boko Haram as a Northern plot against southern leadership. Distrust strips us of the ability to perceive nuance and complexity. Both the state and civil society must refuse to countenance ethno-religious violence as merely an aggressive format of political activism and craft legislation to punish the incendiary and inciting rhetoric retailed by some clerics, politicians and other public voices that generates violence.
Dealing with this specie of crime as an urgent national security and criminal justice matter is absolutely imperative. The military itself failed as an institution by not punishing the January 15 mutineers and subsequently again by not punishing the July 29 mutineers, the principle of the successful treason was established, laying the precedent for a decades-long cycle of coups. By the time federal authorities and secessionist forces bragged and blustered their way into a war that neither was prepared for, the inmates were running the asylum.
That epic failure to protect Easterners in the North during those dark days became the template of the chronic failure of the state to protect ethnic and religious minorities across the federation. It presaged the serial carnivals of death and destruction that blunted our capacity to respond empathically and with sufficient outrage and urgency to the devaluation of human life on our shores.
There was no massive national response to Boko Haram’s savagery because years of unpunished mass-murder have desensitised us to such violence. For decades, serial bouts of sectarian violence, the systematic exclusion of religious and ethnic minorities as “non-indigenes”, the tit-for-tat targeting of communities have been routinised, normalised and met with official shrugs of indifference and resignation.
They are no longer atrocities or tragedies but statistical banalities in a Darwinian wasteland which provide front-page fodder for a relentless news cycle. Because of the lack of historical awareness, a generation born long after the civil war guns fell silent is burdened by inherited prejudices and indulges in revanchist and revisionist follies in cyberspace.
Among the polemical combatants are Awoists who have never read Awolowo, Ojukwu worshippers who have never read his words and Arewa agonistes who have no idea what Ahmadu Bello actually wrote. (To be concluded tomorrow)