Saturday, January 15, 2022 2:00 pm
By Nkrumah Bankong-Obi
When President Muhammadu Buhari and his entourage arrive The Eagle Square, Abuja, for the ceremonial Wreath Laying at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Covid-19 will be the alibi for the sparse attendance this year. The organisers will blame the strict adherence to protocols to avert the spread of SARS-COV-2 for the muted celebrations. But the truth remains that we have never mastered the art and psychology of celebration. We make instrumental ensembles but deliver little on rhythm and substance. I don’t know what to blame for this, but our national celebratory culture is more attuned to the mundane at the expense of the profoundly germaine.
By this time in 1966, a group of young officers of The Nigerian Army newly minted from Sandhurst Military Academy, England, desirous of effecting a change in their nation’s trajectory, took up arms against the leaders; civilian and military. By their time their putsch was brought down, the Nigerian national history had been effectively re-written and her destiny switch from slow to rapid heartbeats…constantly trudging on the furrows of volcanic epicentres. From a civilian administration managed by mostly semiliterate gentlemen, the levers of power switched to knuckles and wrists of a few military brass hats.
It is not the purpose of this piece to adjudicate on the virility, birth affiliations, importance or even strategies of that epoch. I simply want to comment on the poor oxygen fed our collective national memory.
In 2014, Nigeria marked a centennial of the amalgamation of the North and South Protectorates. The government at the time budgeted and perhaps released funds for the programme. We ended up with a non-event. No visit to the old boundaries, no intellectual discussions on what amalgamation means to our nation, no deliberate attempt to recreate the past to refocus the minds of the citizens on the ideal. Instead, we heard money was shared, people went home and shouted Good is good, married more wives and bought posh cars at the expense of a collective experience. Even our national Day, October 1st is celebrated with a wrenching nusia. Aside the regular match-past and occasional speeches, no side attractions to create a buzz of inclusivity among young people. Last year when the nation turned sixty, the commemoration was cold. We quickly blamed Covid-19 which was sinking in. But we waved aside the fact that at other times, we never lived up to expectation.
Perhaps apart from Independence (1960), no other event nibbles and tunes up and down, Nigeria’s unity as the Nigerian Civil War(1967-70), the immediate aftermath of the January 15, 1966 coup does.
So yearly, in our feeble attempts not to be grouped with those who call death veterans ‘sulkers and loosers,’ we gather at the Three Arms Zone, Abuja and the State capitals, to make a few speeches before unleashing innocent pigeons. We then dash home and claim over sumptuous dinner that we have remembered our warriors, death or alive. This shallow way of preserving memory is intriguing, given that Nigeria has been governed in the most part of her history(1960-present) by militarymen or men with military mentality. And that arm knows how to roll out drums, how to make little gigs become large significant ceremonies. Our big men only obey small traditions, they don’t learn the accommodative nature of that dictum, ‘war is peace’.
I arrive at a point where I believe our gathering at Eagle Square alone isn’t enough. I will ask, even if elementarily, what activities take place at the scene where the Premier of Northern Nigeria, Alhaji Ahmadu Bello was killed? What happens at the scene of the first shot that heralded the Civil War? What events hold at Asaba where the grand massacre occurred? Who will be at Ahiaria where the Principles of Deliberate State Policy of Biafra was given by General Ojukwu? Who will hoist the flag at the forest were the Prime Minister was rubbed off, even as we gather at the Eagle Square?
Tomorrow, these places will be quiet. We will leave the key locations to the care of rodents but flaunt white apparels before diplomats as we sway to the tune of music produced by the Guards Brigade.
Remembrance of any epoch must go beyond the consideration of our safety or avoidance of druggery. The living must inconvenience themselves to honour the departed or even the living patriots. In normal situations, one would have expected that Gakem in Bekwarra Local Government Area of Cross River State, where the war started should have been a beehive of activities. Government should ordinarily have deploy men and resources to honour the first sweat and blood spilled on that land in a combat – incidentally, the current Commander-in- Chief was a part that beginning.
When our leaders go overseas, they are lectured how things are done properly. When anniversaries such as Armed Forces Day or Veterans Day or commemorations are held, Europeans, Americans and Asians use the outlets provided by such occasions to preach peace, silently. We know Americans don’t toy with the National Cemetery at Arlington, Pennsylvania or the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Virginia especially on Veterans Day. The occupants of The Kremlin and the presiding deity at The Great Hall of the People, invest a lot of time and resources to demonstrate the expense at which their nation’s purchased peace. We can the same of many other nations.
About a year or two ago, President Buhari was in Katowice, Poland, to attend the UN Climate Change summit. After the programme he was taken on tour of the Concentration Camp at Auschwitz. As I percieved – from the camera footage, the Nigerian leader was moved, invariably mourning in spirit because of the bestiality of what he saw at relics of Adolf Hitler’s carnage. The Poles could have as well just taken President Buhari to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw. No, they understood that the effect won’t be permeate, if they stay with abstracts rather than concrete events. I’m waiting for a day when we can take a visiting President/Prime Minister to Gakem, Asaba or even Ulli, to illustrate how like the proverbial phoenix, we have risen from the ashes of disintegration to a unified entity.
Personally, my shrill voice bawls that Nigeria recognizes the true scenes of conflict and erect commiserate cenotaphhs in those places. I have taken virtual tours of places of conflict elsewhere in the world. Some, a couple of Nigerian leaders actually participated in those military activities. From Ypres in Northern Belgium to Nakura in the Isreali-Labanese border, from Karelia in Finland to Okinawa in Japan, we have seen peace return to previous conflict hotspots just by the power of memory and remembrance.
I have written to President Buhari to remind him of the need to honour his compatriots who died in the internal wars in Nigeria by recognising some of the areas where they paid the ultimate price. I am particular about the Civil War because he took part in it, he knows the harrows that he felt during that tragic tour-of-duty. It is not for the sake of others alone. As I reminded him in my mail, our people say ‘he who honours others, honours himself.’
Between 2018 and this year, I was invited to participate in three international conferences all bearing on post-conflict memory, power and education. The first was the XX conference of the International Oral History Association which held in Jyvaskyla, Finland. I sent a paper on the theme of dearth of witnesses and the recollections of the Nigerian Civil War in Ogoja area. I also sent a paper to the Oral History Association of America, OHA. I dwelled on a similar theme. Last November, via Zoom, I delivered another paper at the Finish Oral History Network, FOHN, on the subject of authority and voice in the recollection, distribution of history -. The Civil War again, was my plank.
Since we got sick of the past and jettisoned the study of History in schools, it is now pertinent to teach the young ones in practical terms, things we wouldn’t want them to read in books. If we don’t, then we will be at the mercy of kidnappers, militants, bandits, terrorists as currently the case. This happens when history doesn’t penetrate the core of society, when we chose the superficial over the elastic solidity of knowledge distribution.
Even as the bands churn melodious tunes later today across the State capitals and at Eagle Square, we must savour the day but bear in mind that we have left the real tombs untended. The crises we encounter today as a nation reinforce Robert Frost’s assertion that ‘there is something the dead are keeping from us’ . Are our departed or living gallant men and women really happy that we remember them only in Abuja, where some of them never stepped foot on? I
Happy Armed Forces Remembrance Day!
*Journalist and poet, Bankong-Obi, first wrote this piece on 15 January 2020. He is reachable via [email protected]