Sunday, 26 May 2013
Governor Fashola At Achebe’s Colloquium By Erwin Ofili
The people of Lagos, nay Nigeria, have always had a fascination for the man, Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola. I am no exception. His leadership in Lagos provides a template for the rest of the country. For instance, while some members of the political leadership in Anambra still complain about being able to raise more from Internally Generated Revenue, despite the economic activity in that state, Lagos has gone on to restructure and simplify its tax collection system and improved its collection of data. He brought to bear the importance of data collection in his address at the Achebe colloquium, reeling off statistics and metrics of the various development projects he instituted in Lagos and noted the effect new policies, like the road traffic rule, had on accidents and behaviours of Lagos residents.
He devoted only the last part of his speech to the controversial Achebe memoir, There was a Country, and I find the maturity in his handling of the subject refreshing and sorely lacking in the ongoing debate. He suggested that the lack of data or historical records from the country’s archives has added to the controversy and led some people to make uninformed inputs into the debate and may lead some to “create their own facts”. I agree. We are seeing that happen already and it is unfortunate that documents pertaining to the Civil War have not only been made unavailable, but Nigeria has sought to suppress all reminders of the war – whether by renaming the Bight of Biafra as the Bight of Bonny, or hiding mass graves.
In fact, at the end of the war, Gowon said “it would be a disservice for anyone to use the word ‘Biafra’”. That attitude towards even the word ‘Biafra’ seems to have continued to this day. The hostile reactions the book has received betrays this attitude towards the subject of the Civil War and a lot of what is written illustrates the dangerous level of ignorance among many Nigerians of what is possibly the defining period of Nigerian history. Some people, in their reaction to the Achebe memoir, have sought to re-write history and give the world their own “facts”, most of which fly in the face of all recorded Nigerian history.
Others that could not provide strong counter-arguments stuck to the well-worn practice of attacking the messenger and insisting all of Achebe’s books be banned. Given the declining reading culture, this would have no noticeable impact on either the book sales, but I digress. This attack on fact and common sense is problematic if Nigeria is truly considering making progress and avoiding a repeat of the mistakes of the past.
Governor Fashola’s speech sought to emphasise how far the country has come after the war, and the peaceful coexistence between the people of the old Western region and Igbo people who reside there. This is summed up in his statement: “my generation has moved on.” But what does this mean? Does it mean we pretend like the unfortunate events never happened, or do not talk about it to avoid “opening old wounds”? If we cannot talk about the war in a mature manner and all sides cannot be civil with one another, can we truly say the wounds of the war are healed?
The fact is, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, many people in this generation are still living with the effects of the war and a lot of the people in the generation that experienced the war are still alive. As a young boy who was born and bred in Lagos, I remember being asked often: “Where are you from?” When my ignorance of the answer to that question showed in my not giving an answer quickly enough, it usually elicited the follow up: “Oh, you do not know where you come from. What if there was a problem in the country and everyone have to return to their states of origin, where would you go?”
There are many of us who balk when we notice we are asked about our ethnic affiliations in the forms we fill when we want to open a bank account. We wonder, “Why do they want to know, do they want to make seizing my money easier whenever they decide to?” Some Igbo people I know who faced difficulty retrieving their properties in Lagos advice their kinsmen not to invest in property anywhere outside the South East, and think that those who do are asking for trouble. The seizure of Igbo-owned properties throughout Nigeria has caused a fundamental change in the attitudes of the Igbo.
While they may still invest outside the South East, unlike before they make it a priority to build first a house in the family land in case, as one of my friends eloquently put it, “Nigeria blows whistle.” While in the new generation there are Igbo people who see themselves as very much a part of the community they are born and raised in, there are many more like my colleague in the university who expressed his preference to invest abroad because “Nigeria does not offer security to investors.”
I have a cousin who recently refused a mortgage plan to invest in Lagos property preferring to only pay rent because he fears it could be seized in the future. The most common refrain of people who are eager to demonstrate that what unites us as Nigerians is stronger than what divides us is to point out the intermarriage between different ethnic groups. But even here, it is well-known that it is much easier for a Nigerian to marry a non-Nigerian than to marry a fellow Nigerian from a different ethnic group.
Whatever “moving on” means, it should not be a way of coping with the evils of our past by denial. The fact that Nigerian history and civics stopped being taught to Nigerian students shortly after the Civil War should give us all pause. No country that is serious about moving forward does so by denying its past. Even the United States does not deny the genocide that was committed by earlier settlers against the Aborigines. Neither do they deny the slave trade nor the long period of slavery that built their country. Nigeria, on the other hand, has no memorial for the over 3 million people killed in the Civil War. How do we make a commitment that “never again would our people be killed by their own people” if we choose not to remember, or if every talk about the pogroms and the Civil War is reduced to talk of the “Igbo presidency project”?
Many Nigerians are unaware that the war may never have taken place and Biafra allowed to secede – much like Singapore that was excised from Malaysia – but for the discovery of oil in the then Eastern region and the foreign involvement that it brought. So while Fashola salutes those who fought for our “unity”, it is important we all reflect on the basis for that “unity” in the light of global powers seeking energy independence. We should also reflect that while Nigeria were unwilling to stick to the terms of the Aburi peace agreement, the country’s leaders were so willing to surrender Bakassi to Cameroun based largely on an undocumented agreement; this has huge implications for the stability of West Africa and Nigeria’s future foreign policy and respectability which I will not go into here.
The emphasis Governor Fashola placed on the cordial relationship between the Igbo and the Yoruba people is important and necessary at this time. People on both sides of the argument have erroneously seen Achebe’s criticism of Awolowo as an attack on the Yoruba people. This is ludicrous and ominously indicative of Nigeria’s falling educational standard. The people of all the regions of Nigeria did not act the same during the Civil war or the pogroms preceding it. Just as you had some Yoruba leaders distributing “Upgaism” pamphlets and creating an us-versus-them atmosphere at the time, you also had many Yoruba leaders who spoke against the cruelty of the pogroms and the injustice of the war – some like Soyinka were imprisoned for their stance; his book about the war “The Man Died” was banned by General Gowon’s government.
Even now, while we have progressive people in Lagos like Gov. Fashola working with the Igbo in Lagos government, an example being Ben Akabueze the Commissioner of Economic planning and an Anambra indigene, you also have some who say that only Lagos indigenes should be in the Lagos government. There were Yoruba people, and other Nigerians in Southern and Northern Nigeria, that protected their Igbo neighbours and friends from persecution. The importance of taking all that into perspective is to realise that we humans have different sides to us. We have the side that seeks to build and promote peace, and another side that seeks to destroy and cause disharmony.
This is important to note because in every human society, leaders and demagogues exist that can and will appeal to either side. This is part of the flaws of democracy; it is too dependent on the wisdom of the general populace, who can be quite ignorant and fickle in a society with high rate of poverty and low educational standards. And as the history of the ascent of the Nazi party and the subsequent Holocaust, the voice of the people is not always the voice of God. This is why we need to discuss even the uncomfortable parts of our history and educate ourselves about our past, because as God’s word says, “the truth shall set you free.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of SaharaReporters