The History We Didn’t Learn, The Lessons We Didn’t Take


By Okey Anueyiagu

By the turn of the years 1966-1970, it was incontrovertibly evident that Nigeria had committed massive crime against humanity, and had gone through a vicious journey through atrocities against its citizens, particularly the Igbo and other ethnic minorities of the then part of the country known as Eastern Nigeria. Today, it is becoming evident that nothing much has changed; and that this glaring passivity discounts in a rather frightening manner, the horror of this genocide and the ultimate impetuosity of this crime. It appears that as the world turned a blind eye in the past to this crime, it has, once again, anfractuously grown numb to these atrocities.

The shameful, but ignored history of these atrocities have never been taught in our schools for over five decades. The massacre and other related vicious episodes of Nigerian violence carried out against its citizens, and the Easterners, especially the Igbo, have become part of the history we did not learn, and the lessons we have not taken.

We have spent a considerable amount of time and wasteful energy trying to outrun the ghost of all those whose lives were wickedly taken, but the weight of the past and the haunting spirits of our sins are lurking night and day, behind us. I have, on my own, spent a lifetime trying to understand and comprehend the savagery in our past, wishing that I could turn back the hand of time and unsee the scenes that I witnessed as a child growing up; of children, men and women savagely terrorized and slaughtered simply because of their tribe, tongue or creed.

How our past informs the present in beautiful and tragic ways must be our primary concern as we constantly seek ways to correct the ills of our past and of a bewildering and checkered Nigerian history. Only when this is done and implemented to the fullest, can we build a virile and strong country.

The Inclination and the effort to learn and teach the history of the Biafra war and the horrors of it, must include the ghastly results of the ethnic cleansing, the tribal annihilation and the general hostility of the horrible era. This history when told, must also share the resilience, fortitude and perseverance of the Igbo people that survived that war. I believe that it is only in acknowledging our faults and admitting that these crimes were committed, that we can hope to grow and survive as a country. Otherwise, the omission of these events in the history of our nation must be considered as the perpetration and manifestation of a continuing oppression of the Igbo and other Easterners.

Why is it imperative that our sepulchral history must be told? Not as a politicized or polarized recounting of our past, but as pedagogical moments and as tools to help us understand our historical sordid past with an optimistic lesson that knowledge brings insights that help people change and heal.

It is claimed in several quarters that the most heinous crime against our society, apart from the physical atrocities from the pogrom in the North and some parts of the South West, and the genocide that followed in the East, is the deliberate exclusion of the teaching of the history of these events in our schools and our cultural institutions. It is rather shameful that our leaders considered and decided that the critical tribal theory of our disgraceful past have no place in the curriculums of our students. The question of why our leaders took these terrible actions remain painfully valid today. Some consider these actions to be because people may be made uncomfortable upon learning about the mistreatment of the Igbo, or may expose the attempts made by the active participants in these actions to surpress their wicked deeds and cover their perfidious pasts. Let us allow history, the clear metaphors of our lives, to be the judge.
The history of Nigeria’s sordid pasts and the senseless spilling of innocent blood preceded the January 15, 1966 military coup in which prominent politicians were murdered in cold blood. But this coup, the first military coup in the history of the country, signalled a new dimension to killings with some tribal undertones. This coup, tagged an Igbo coup because a radical and idealistic young Igbo officer led it, took the lives of many politicians of other ethnic groups, except that of the Igbo stock. Although it has long been proven by many authoritative sources that it was not a tribal (Igbo) coup, as many of the participants were from many other ethnic groups, the promoters and proponents of tribal dichotomy, have conveniently used this excuse to exact some form of comminatory actions and vengeance against the Igbo without any commiserate measures or limits.

As I grew up in the North, I witnessed and became an integral part of the history of these atrocities. In my book; Biafra, The Horrors of War, The Story of A Child Soldier, I chronicled a clear and vivid personal recollection of the crisis in the North, and all the way to the war in the East. It was a historical journey for me, and of an about to be forgotten dramatic but painful and perilous mental and physical struggle of a people. In my grappling with the horrors of the very long crisis and the almost forgotten war, with the devastating sordid and haunting imagery, I worry that our history has failed to recall and record the bitter and wicked account of our people’s journey through darkness and of a country that has gone berserk.

Today, it seems that the lessons of that war have been consigned in the dustbin of our scanty memories, and that the fissiparous forces have once again appeared, dripping with blood, in Nigeria.

Nigeria, a country with the greatest potentials for prosperity, not necessarily from its huge oil and hydrocarbon reserves, but from its vast and veritable human resources in a world ruled today by technology and digital economy, has fallen way back in meeting the threshold of global development. By general consensus, the problem of Nigeria is largely in part due to the country’s inability to learn from the history of its past, and by its refusal to utilize the opportunities of exploiting the events of the past, to reconcile with the present.

The gripping and memorable history of Nigeria’s vitriolic past that have been denied its people, is principally responsible for its failures. I believe very strongly that until we know our history, we will never have a future. To move forward, we must look back in order to solve a lot of our problems.

The crisis that led to the war in which 3 million Igbo and other Easterners died, led to the deep feeling of accumulated grieviances and general bitterness. People began to feel a lot of prejudices and repression toward each other. The prevalence of unjust and authoritarian rule emerged and began to truncate democracy and ravaging national unity which got displaced by tribalism, nepotism with primodial tendencies.

It appeared then, and even more prominently now, that we did not learn from the history of our past, and that we have deliberately not addressed several issues from our history that provided no books in our libraries, or our archives, but only those that are left in our blury and bloodied memories. The well-planned avoidance of a systematic recording and accounting of the crisis and the war, as we have no official history of these events, and as it has not been part of the teachings in our schools, is a major issue and a hindrance to the path to peace and prosperity. For these and many other reasons, the hypothesis of Nigeria as a Nation-State has been very contentious and hanging on a thin tread for decades.

Many believe, and I agree, that if we were allowed the ever so compelling privileges of studying the history of our past, especially that of the sordid history of the killings of over 3 million helpless people, our country would have hearkened to the admonitions and brutal lessons that those disturbing periods afforded us.,

What lessons do we as responsible Nigerians expect to learn from our past horrible history? There are many. This history, once it is properly told, will reveal The Truth. It will also acknowledge the harm committed by, and done to certain people, and will hold the perpetrators accountable. The lessons will point to Truth and Justice as the anchor and pillar for a strong country desiring unity and national harmony.

To know, acknowledge and to recognize the history of the crisis and of the war, is to prevent future occurrences. We all have a legitimate right to know the history of the war, and to deny us this inalienable right, is to destroy the future of the country. History may compel us to show remorse, and may also ensure forgiveness and healing from pains and horrors of our past, leading to institutional reforms and closure.

In my aforementioned book, I wrote extensively about the period in the history of our country between January 15, 1966 and January 12, 1970, as a period when darkness befell the nation. This period was marked by murder, killings, pillage and indescribable destruction. My personal experience of this parlous period, was to say the least, devastating. It is difficult to describe the effect that this war had on so many people, especially on the Igbo who were at the receiving end of the bitter and horrible experiences. Fifty years after the end of this debacle, all my thoughts – while inexplicably escaping from the hold of words and emotions – are always wandering and drifting over dark images and shadows in my attempts to meander into indescribable nightmares from the events of the pogrom, the genocide and the continuing neglect of the people who suffered through this period.

Today as many of us who witnessed this carnage ponder the devastation, all we have left are memories of horror and questions about how it was possible for people to inflict such pain and sorrow on their fellow citizens and phlegmatically go about as if nothing happened. One must also wonder why and how the history of this war was not told, preserved and conserved. The suppression of this story is responsible for the disunity in the land.
I believe that because we did not learn any lessons from this war, our country from the day that that war ended, until today, has become a wasted opportunity without any bright future. It has become a kleptocratic and an autocratic state that is very divisively dysfunctional, with political and economic structures that are not inclusive and devoid of equality. Contextualizing this country Nigeria ─– within the axiom of the crisis and the Civil War; its causes, results and outcome, ─¬─ exposes breathlessly, the level of evil, incompetent and tyrannical leadership, monstrous corruption, religious and tribal bigotry, violence and all manners of destabilizing vices.

There are so many unanswered questions about the crisis and the civil war that constantly beg for a clear resolution that many believe would enhance the protracted healing and some form of restoration and reforms.

Why have there been no answers and truthful explanation for the killings of politicians and other leaders in 1966? Who planned and executed these coups? For what purposes were these coups and counter-coups carried out? Were they military, tribal, ideological coups? The answers, and the correct answers are known by true patriots. No matter how mischief-makers may try to distort our national history, the truth can never be hidden, and it is only when it is told, and told with the boldest and truest inspiration and intention, that our country will be set free from the bondage of lies, deceit and bloodletting.

Why have there been no answers for the crimes against humanity committed against the Igbo in all parts of Northern Nigerian and in some parts of the West known as the pogrom? What about the brutal and senseless massacre of innocent Igbo citizens in Asaba; the deliberate Nigerian Government policy to blockade all routes into Biafra causing deadly starvation that took the lives of millions of children; and the other genocidal war crimes committed by Nigerian troops against innocents civilians, mostly women and the elderly during the war? These high crimes were not investigated, the perpetrators were not tried and brought to justice. The history of these ugly incidences have been deliberately discarded and buried for the sole purpose of preventing our people from knowing our evil past. How can we heal if we do not know what and why those things happened? How can we learn from our mistakes and make amends?

How can we begin to forgive if we do not learn of what happened? Remarkably, it appears that the Igbo, while not forgetting what they have experienced in the hands of their fellow citizens, may have learned the lessons of forgiveness. They may have forgiven the pains they suffered, and are continuing to suffer as members of a country they have invested heavily in founding and building. Otherwise, how do you explain the fact that the Igbo right after the war, embraced the concept of one Nigeria and began to rapidly reintegrate with the rest of the country, moving to live in faraway places like Sokoto and Maiduguri; places that witnessed their near annihilation.

Though the brutal war was fought and lost, the majority of the Igbo were ready to forgive their transgressors and those that mercilessly took the lives of 3 million of their own. This was one of the many paradoxes about that dreadful war. The ability of the Igbo to forgive the torments of that war, and their facility to regain equanimity in the wake of the unspeakable atrocities and the dehumanizing scars inflicted on them is a remarkable feat that is unparalled in the history of genocide, repression and persecution in the world. Many have posed the question of whether there is a special attribute in the Igbo DNA that activates a forgiving nature or spirit, and if there is a cultural disposition in them that prevents them from harboring any form of hate for their tormentors? Others think that they possess a God-given ability to endure agregious cruel acts and aggravated malice perpetrated against them without reciprocating in kind. But for how long will they continue to uphold this heteronymous disposition of willingness to forgive?

My punctilious and scrupulous dissection of this Igbo forgiving spirit, serves as a worthy exercise for the rest of Nigeria. It is a virtue worthy of emulation, because I believe that forgiveness serve as an instrument for stopping wars and promoting lasting peace and prosperity; that forgiveness entails a divine reciprocity, for when we forgive others, God forgives us. The lesson learned from the Igbo spirit of forgiveness, is an amazing lesson of how to create spiritual, physical and fiscal growth for our country.

But how do we forgive when we have been denied the history and knowledge of what transpired? How do we stop these atrocities when we do not even recognize that we have made surreptitious mistakes? How do we grow if we do not learn from our history and take lessons from our fugacious and perfidious past?

I will dare, with some measure of trepidation, to say that the calamitous and lugubrious condition that our country finds itself today is spiritual and karmatic. That the failure to admit and atone for our sins may be responsible for the many killings going on in virtually all parts of Nigeria. As trivial as this postulation may sound, I drew some of my conviction after I spoke to my father just before he passed at the age of 100 years a few years ago. I asked him why our country was falling apart so rapidly. With tears in his eyes, the old man began to explain that the country missed a great opportunity when after the war it failed to reconcile the waring factions, and truly rehabilitate the East. He regretted that a country he fought so hard with others to gain independence for, turned against him and his people.

When I noticed that my father was reluctant to discuss this issue further, I prodded and pressed him, realizing that his vast experience as one of the founding fathers of our country will be valuable in solving some portions of our dilemma. I asked him what he did after the war to influence the leaders then. He told me how he had met three of his closest friends and allies from the North; Malam Aminu Kano (who was the Federal Commissioner For Communication), Alhaji Ado Bayero (Emir of Kano) and Alhaji Maitama Sule. They all agreed that the war was unnecessary and that the outcome was disastrous for the Easterners. They agreed with my father, that there was a dire need to rehabilitate and reconstruct the East and its people. My father regretted that despite the good intentions of these men, the rest of the country was content on carrying out further spurious and punitive actions against the Igbo and other Easterners. The profundity and import of this brief interjection here, cannot be lost to our present day predicaments, as we ponder the wise words of a man who was knocking on the gates of heaven on his way to meet his ancestors.

I am optimistically hopeful that this write-up will not be negatively provocative and will not be viewed as an apologia for any tribe, religion or region, but as a chary and sorrowful cry of a human being who was entangled in the bilious and sickening incidences of our past. For those who are insouciant and unworried about these issues, may they never feel the pains and agonies of those that perished in the hands of their fellow human beings. May they never father children who were made orphans and left in desolation. May the dead bodies of their relatives never be dumped and abandoned in the forest of despair and on lonely roadsides, left to rot and to be eaten and devoured by vultures and wild animals. May they never suffer the fate of the Igbo and other Easterners whose mothers were made widows, and who could not provide breast milk for their young babies simply because they were themselves famished, malnourished and dying from starvation, torture, bullets and bombs, for sins they knew nothing about, or of.

May all mankind and people of good conscience; all people of our Creator, pause for a second and share the enormous burden of our past in recognizing and cherishing the contents of this story and the agonies suffered by many in our land. May we all be spared this experience and make ourselves tools and instruments for the repair of our past ugliness and our impending doom as our nation is engulfed and encircled in cataclysmic plundering, wanton rapings and kidnappings, killings and other traumatic decimations of no mean proportion.

These days, it is tough to get a supermajority of Nigerians to agree on the color of the sky, much less on the politically and ethnically delicate and sensitive topics of the ignominious pogrom and the civil war. Will the vestiges of these issues pollute our already convoluted political atmosphere? My clear wager is NO. And it is a pertinent and perspicuous NO. What bothers me, and should bother many other well-meaning Nigerians, is how we have incinerated our history to the point of overhandedness that cynically and with such agony, created silly, but painful diversions from the grave injustice that has been visited on a vast number of our fellow citizens.

I think that denying us the history of our past is in all circumstances, so injurious and cruel, and a shameful defeat of our constitutional and moral principles and the ultimate defeat of the triumph of equity, fairness, empathy and justice.

I am not a Historian. I am, but a conscious citizen who realizes that the only way we can all live a peaceful life is by us all recognizing our past mistakes. We must write and talk about them, relive and savour them, and use them positively to direct our present and future actions. For those who think that revisiting and studying this history is so complicated and dangerous, I invite them to consider that the price of freedom and emancipation, is embedded in the knowledge of truth, and by a reminder that freedom in this Country has never meant and felt the same for everyone and has more often than not, been conditional.

The intentional rush to obliterate the history of our past by our leaders who laboriously paint the mythical picture of a “one-Nigeria”, “a city upon a hill” or a site of moral justice, is hopeless and lacking in clarity and authenticity. In our collectivity, I reckon that we have mostly lost sight of the possibility that exist in the hidden and marginalized histories of Nigeria.We MUST tell the stories of our past. This story will set us FREE.

The history we didn’t learn, and the lessons we didn’t take are responsible for the anachronism that our country has become today.

Dr. Anueyiagu writes from Ikoyi, Lagos


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