Monday, January 3, 2022 1:04 pm
By Nkrumah Bankong-Obi
Fifty-four years after, the story of the beginning of The Nigeria Civil War comes to print in a book form.
It deserved to be told first and foremost. First things, first. That is the logic. No, there are times when logic is humbled and turned against the flow of sequence, while we swim against the tide, oftentimes to horrorful endings. This has been the story of The Nigeria-Biafra War(1967-1970). Perhaps every living soul in this country has heard about the war. The libraries in some institutions overseas are saturated with accounts of the prime events that shape the destiny of this country. But, extremely little is known about the war’s cradle and the areas where it’s cannonball was ignited, hence the disjoint in the telling process and the enduring poor national healing.
No one is to blame for this, yet we must all be blamed. There is a reason to hold all of us to account. The absence of a sound teaching about this conflict has yielded space to all sorts of misinformation. We fear to talk about the past because it’s wraith stares us in the face. We dread to look at our failures. So, as a nation, we yield ground to individuals and groups, some unpatriotic to tell this story as they deem reasonable enough. And in the process, such people don’t just preserve memory but steer undying emotions. They say history isn’t taught is schools anymore. True? So, where are we groping to? A blood-soaked ditch?
Sometime ago I had the privilege, not by design anyway, to be in the midst of some retired top Generals working for the government in some consultancy roles. Someone introduced me as the author of a forthcoming book on The Nigerian Civil War. Instantly, the brass hats took me up for writing that “GAKEM was not recognised as the first point of the start of the civil war”. They reminded me that every military officer receives education about that area as it relates to the war at the Staff College or at the Nigerian Defence Academy. After taking in a lot of verbal pumelling, I asked them what the proportion of NDA students and alumni is, in ratio to that of the general populace. I requested of them, proof that the cadets know where the area is, and what tactically informed the choice of Gakem as the plinth of the war, afterall, Gakem is so far from Enugu, the seat of Biafran government than most towns in Ogoja Province. Our conversation on that score was deadlocked. But I had registered my feeling. The officers promised to look out for my book.
From the perspective of Ogoja Province, the war is under-reported because a conflict of that magnitude was sui generis in Nigeria. We hadn’t seen artillery weapons, such bandolier of ammo and military trucks, ferrets and Saladins and thousands of troops being moved about, from North to South. There may have been the Tiv riots, the Western Nigeria election crises in 1964. But none came close to the mustering of military might around Makurdi, preparatory to strike southwards in the middle of the 1960s.
The absence of European and American media on the scene eclipsed and cast a blanket on the reportage of the war from the Ogoja frontier. True, the war was heaviest in the Eastern mainland. But every thing done in the East began in small measures in Ogoja area. Need we also say that? Take for example, the massacres, shall we say small genocides? The bludgeoning and coercion of young men and women to join the military forces and the confiscation of property belonging to individuals and communities. We won’t talk about the first civil and martial deaths,not the land that is still undemined, not the people still carrying shrapnel wounds, not the deformities resulting from medically depressed births and the cases of PTSD that became rampant after the war swept through Ogoja.
I have been to the hill where the then Lieutenant Gado Nasco released the first artillery power whose moss codes effectively announced the Nigeria Civil War or the Nigeria-Biafra War. When you visit Ushara Hill, you’d observe that the most vital aspects of Nigerian history are decorated on pates of wastelands. No effort to change and show that we ever learn. The trenches in Gakem and elsewhere are filling up, slowly, the custodians of the story, from the perspective of the civil witnesses are dying out. Soon, we will be left with only hagiographic accounts of military denizens and the follow up by some ersatz patriots to keep serving narrow interests..
Finding the disjoint in The Nigerian Civil War reprehensible therefore, it became a pertinent assignment for me to try and document this story. One thing I learnt from this enterprise is the urgency of history. In 2013, Chief Boniface Iyala,the traditional ruler of Ushara who spoke to me was only a ‘young pensioner’. But when I called to check on him two years later, he was gone. Chief Iyala was the eldest person around and custodian of knowledge about the war in Gakemland. He was 20years when the war broke out. There are a couple of others who are taking turns to be in commune with the ancestors. So, I guess my desire to hear from them and share this lemonade wasn’t just an exercise in oral history but a fulfilling self-empowerment by a contribution to national rebirth through memory.
The dire lack of attention to memory has stunk us so badly. Nigeria is in the shape it it is because of the absence of deliberate investment in history as a pathway to social reformation. When we forget the past, we just carve craters for imminent downfall. We have seen how the gun-hugging mentality of the war has continued to thrive among us. From the Maistasine riots, the multiple religious crises, the June 12 riots, the Odi and Zaki Biam crises, the OPC conflict, Militancy in the Niger-Delta, the Sharia Riots, the Boko Haram carnage in the Northeast and now, Banditry and Kidnapping all over the country, have exposed our failure to shine the light through history, thus, we have emboldened darkness to come at us with so much rage.
The book, The First Shot Ogoja Province and the Untold Story of The Nigeria/Biafra War begins in Ogoja. But it’s actually a Nigerian story. It is sliced into seven chapters, beginning with the precolonial history of Ogoja. By the second to sixth chapter, it’s wholly Nigerian. I recall the unquantifiable contribution that Ogoja elite of that the time made towards the unity of this country. Efforts of I. I. Morphy, SE Imoke, Okoi Arikpo, Emmanuel Ndoma-Egba, GG Ally, Lekam Okoi, have not been acknowledged or is simply lost in the historical mist. The last chapter is an advisory to communities that suffered effects of the war and how they can engage in self-help projects in the absence of the government attention. The are an appendix, a postscript and an exclusive interview. Interviews run through the entire book. Sometimes of these sessions were given by voices we will never hear but who hold some of the most vital information. If I may ask for instance, who has heard the voice of the man who was Col. Ojukwu’s Adjutant in 5th Battalion, Kano or ADC? Who knows how Army Headquarters in Lagos got connected on secure lines to Makurdi before General Mohammed Shuwa was ordered to begin the ‘police action’ that degenerated to a shooting war?. I’m not a journalist who plies his trade in glitter and glamour. I prefer the drugery of the streets because it affects alot more of the ordinary folk. Anyone who finds this book should at least read The Postscript. It’s the kernel of my message to the Nigerian State.
In The First Shot…, I have not made any attempt at analysing the war. I leave that to historiographers. I fully take on this task in the sequel, War Without End? This will come later. Let’s embrace our past, know the story and make amends as it is important to do so.
Let’s begin from the beginning, get The First Shot…
Happy New Year!